Welcome to Mo’s Letter, a series of essays by Dr Mo on personal growth and professional success in a digital world. Today’s essay is about niches.
In varsity, forever bored with my allocated PowerPoint Pastors, I spent a lot of time scribbling notes into my “Idea Bank,” a notebook that held pages upon pages of half-baked moon-shots.
These were the desperate attempts of a 17yr old boy to stay awake in classrooms that sapped him of intellectual stimulation. Of course, I never got around to executing any of them. The ideation process was far more enjoyable.
At the time, I thought I needed billions of dollars to live comfortably. I figured that since life gets ever more expensive and inflation is a thing, the only way to reach a point where you never need to work again was to make a billion dollars.
Years later, after a sobering round of adulting and a keener understanding of “mo’ money, mo’ problems” I’ve revised this number down to a lump sum of about R30m. Assuming you settled in SADC, you could comfortably live off the annual ~8% interest forever.
But back then, I still needed a way to get to those millions.
The great thing about life is there are a thousand ways to make money. The terrible thing about life is there are a thousand ways to make money.
You’ll never be able to do all of them (and you wouldn’t want to). The trick, as ever, is to find and dominate your own little corner of the market.
Nail and scale
There’s a guy I know, a former student of mine who ventured into the cleaning business. He offers the standard fare: house cleaning, mobile laundry, and other assorted services that lean heavily on detergents and bleach.
His marketing is top-notch, his customer service is great (I’ve hired them before), and most importantly, he’s been consistent with it for the last few years.
He’s staked out his own little corner of the market — and he’s owning it.
COVID-19 brought about increased demand for deep cleaning and constant sanitation, which I suppose was a boon for him. It also revealed to me the sheer scale of the cleaning industry, which spans everything from the detergents themselves (and all the value chains that aspect comprises) to the cleaners, the laundry delivery guys, the apps, the marketplaces, and all the other services surrounding the industry.
In time, when he gets big enough, he’ll be able to invest and play in all those other niches. But for now, if you need someone to clean your house or do your laundry, his team stands at the ready.
The lesson here is obvious:
For you to make a lot of money doing everything, you need to make enough money doing one thing.
I consider it criminal that my high school teachers never showed me the sheer scale of career opportunities within the writing profession. There’s almost nothing on this planet that doesn’t make use of a writer at some point. Books are the obvious use-case, but there’s more.
All marketing campaigns start with a brief, which is then expounded upon by a copywriter. Musicians write lyrics (as songwriters) or notes (as composers). Public speakers write speeches and keynotes.
Politicians and lawmakers write legislation. CEOs and executive teams write strategy notes and policies. Engineers write specifications and instruction manuals, and journalists write about everyone above.
Writing itself is an easy skill to learn. You do it every day on your phone, and if you’re reading this then you’ve probably spent the last fifteen years or so cranking out words at school.
However, mastering and monetizing this crucial skill is a whole different ball game. Without a concrete starting point, you’d suffer from the same problem 17-year old me did: wanting to be everywhere without know where to start.
The answer is deceptively simple: find your own little corner and set up shop.
If you like writing about video games, then do just that. Play as much as you can, find tech and entertainment publications that are looking for new content, and offer your services. There’d be time to write about PCs, cellphones, and other gadgets later; but you need to have your own little corner that nobody can take away from you.
You need to be known for something.
Everything is extendable
Your own little corner is what will generate you infinite wealth. One of my mottos is that “everything is extendable” — meaning you can take anything and scale it up or niche down even further. You can “extend” it in either direction.
I call it “choosing between space and the sea” — here’s why:
Humans are obsessed with what’s “out there” — we wonder whether there is extraterrestrial life or other planets suitable for habitation like ours. We pump billions into space programs, fire rockets into space, and write endless streams of words and lyrics in the form of films, songs, shows, and books about space.
Space represents “the final frontier” — humanity’s opportunity to scale our existence infinitely.
However, the sea contains multitudes.
Deep down in the oceans, there are creatures we’re just yet discovering; creatures with wildly unimaginable strengths, features, and implications for research and the advancement of the human race. There are corals and reefs, treasure troves, and pockets of enormous value waiting to be unlocked in those watery depths.
The oceans are humanity’s chance to niche down and focus on ever-smaller aspects of our existence; things related to the very origins of our species. You could spend a lifetime learning about sharks and still not know everything about them.
Similarly, you can choose to scale up or niche down your business — and you could make billions in either direction.
A medical student could decide to practice as a GP after their residency. In time, they could make enough money to open up new branches of their practice, leveraging their scale to pull in ever-higher profits. The more they expanded, the greater their income potential. Scale increases profits.
Or they could go the other way and specialize in treating certain cancers. They could niche down even further to focus only on skin cancer. Or go even further and only specialize in skin cancer for elderly women.
The more they specialized, the greater their income potential. Specialization reduces competition.
Pick a direction and hit the gas.
Finding your own little corner
I refer a lot to the Japanese concept of ikigai because it helps in choosing what to focus on — at least in the beginning. What do you love to do, that you’re good at, that the world needs, that you can monetize?
Once you’ve identified your One Thing™ (or several related things), get to work putting together your gift (product) and telling the world about it (marketing).
The solution doesn’t always have to come from within, by the way; you can also discover an existing unmet need and fulfil it profitably.
As you get better at offering this One Thing™ and getting paid for it, consider whether you’d prefer to scale up or niche down even further. But whatever you do, ensure you can always identify your own little corner of the market.
Make sure they can’t take it away from you.
Till next week,
In my last post, I touched on the concept of disappointment — how it’s ok if we don’t always get the things we want. Here’s why:
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Mohammed Shehu, Ph.D. writes on marketing, content, and tech for fast-growing B2B clients. You can find him online @shehuphd everywhere.